Dominican Republic 1978

The Attempted Coup in the Dominican Republic
Why the Generals Got Cold Feet

First published: June 19, 1978;
Source: Intercontinental Press, Vol. 16, No.24, Pgs.728-729;
Transcription: Amaury Rodriguez, 2020.
Transcriber’s Note: This article appeared in Intercontinental Press (IP), a weekly magazine published in New York on behalf on the Fourth International from 1963 to 1986. I thank Pathfinder Press for granting me permission to post this article. I substituted cursives for bold letters in the interview questions to make it more readable in digital format and corrected grammar for clarity.

The following interview was conducted by Gus Horowitz in Santo Domingo on June 3 with two revolutionary socialists: Enrique De León, a former general secretary of the Dominican teachers’ union[1] and author of the recently published book Opresión y Democracia Sindical (Oppression and Trade-Union Democracy); and Claudio Tavárez,[2] who wrote the introduction to the book and is well known for his activity in defense of trade union and democratic rights.

Question. What is the significance of the PRD* victory in the recent elections in the Dominican Republic?

De León: First of all, the May 16 elections were a big defeat for Joaquín Balaguer, the incumbent. It represented a repudiation of his twelve-year rule and of the policies he stood for. [3] More generally, the vote showed that the masses of working people are demanding measures to improve their living conditions and to meet their most urgent problems. In general, these demands include an agrarian reform, wage increases and a general lowering of the high cost of living, nationalization of the multinational corporations, freedom for the political prisoners, the right of the exiles to return, and other measures along these lines. Although the electoral results were favorable to the PRD they do not mean that all those who voted for the PRD ticket consider themselves PRD supporters. The Dominican people were using the PRD as the channel to express their repudiation of the Balaguer government and to show their desire for an improvement in their conditions of life.

Q. Do you think, then, that the PRD will carry out policies that will meet the demands that the masses are raising? Will the PRD government be able to satisfy their expectations?

Tavárez: Whether the reforms that the PRD promised are carried out or not depends on several factors. One of these is the economic crisis that the country is going through. The PRD will be inheriting a very difficult situation from the Balaguer regime, which is supposed to leave office on August 16.

Another factor will be the role of the military-bureaucratic sectors of the bourgeoisie, those sectors that were behind the attempted coup on May 17, when they thought that their interests were threatened by the PRD election victory. Although they had to back away from the attempted coup, they will still try to preserve their interests. Then there will be the question of the degree of mobilization that the masses can make on behalf of their interests; this would be a pressure on the PRD to fulfill their election promises. But there is something else to keep in mind. Even if the PRD does carry out some of its promised reforms, it would not mean that the basic needs and aspirations of the masses of people would be met. It should be stressed that although the PRD presented a program of reforms in the elections and made many promises to the masses, it is a capitalist party. In addition, it has been evolving in a rightward direction for the past several years. [4]

Q. What has the PRD said since the election?

Tavárez: The PRD is toning down its image. It now says that it will wipe the slate clean with respect to the past. That is, they will not touch the interests of the military-bureaucratic sectors who enriched themselves through corruption; the structure of the armed forces will not be affected; those guilty of crimes during the Balaguer regime will not be brought to justice. As for the question of a general amnesty and the return of the exiles, PRD President-elect Antonio Guzmán has said that each case will be reviewed individually, to see if any were guilty of criminal acts. But of course, most of the political prisoners and exiles have been falsely accused of criminal acts by the Balaguer regime-that is, they were accused of being terrorists, of killing policemen, of robbing banks, and so forth. So Guzmán’s stance indicates a retreat on this issue. [5]

As for the nationalization of the multi nationals, the PRD has reaffirmed that it will not challenge the multinationals. At the most it will seek to renegotiate some of the contracts-which Balaguer had already been doing. Also significant are the PRD leaders’ proposals that some of the government-run enterprises-those operating at a loss-be turned over to Dominican capitalists, or to Dominican capitalists in combination with U.S. or Spanish interests. This, too, is a step backwards from their election promises. In international affairs, Guzmán says that his government will continue the same policies towards Cuba as the Balaguer regime, that is, to establish relations with Cuba only after the United States has done so. Guzmán also says that he will not permit Communists to hold public posts of responsibility in his government. This is a signal to the capitalists that his government will be reliable as a pro-capitalist government. The statements by Guzmán and other PRD leaders on these issues also indicate that they intend to retreat on the economic and social promises that they made in the election campaign.

Q. Then what was the significance of the statements by the PRD’s general secretary, Peña Gómez? As reported in some of the U.S. papers, he said that the new government would be socialist.

Tavárez: This was immediately repudiated by Guzmán, who stated categorically that his government would in no way be of a socialist type. And, he added, only he could speak for the new government. For his part, Peña Gómez has made it clear that his remarks had been misinterpreted, and that he too firmly holds that the new government will not be a socialist one.

Q. How do you explain what occurred on May 17 when armed forces units stopped the counting of the ballots?

Tavárez: When the early election returns showed the PRD ahead, this came as a big surprise. It had been generally expected that Balaguer would win. For several reasons. In the period prior to the elections he had been carrying out a demagogic campaign aimed at winning sectors of the masses. He could count on the support of important sectors of the bourgeoisie. He had the support of the army and the police. He was able to use the resources of the state to further his electoral campaign. And he drew on the weight of twelve years in office. He had a very important additional base of support-U.S. imperialism. All of this was combined with repressive measures which, he calculated, would intimidate people in the elections. So, when the initial results came in and were favorable to the PRD, the armed forces occupied the offices of the National Electoral Board and stopped the count. This occurred in the very early morning of May 17.

De León: This represented an attempted coup by a sector of the bourgeoisie that was determined to prevent the PRD from taking over the government. Who was behind the coup? Primarily the parasitic sectors of the bourgeoisie who gained their power and wealth through the posts they held in the military and governmental apparatus during the rule of Joaquín Balaguer. That is, a bourgeois stratum within the government bureaucracy and the military. They saw the impending defeat of Balaguer as signifying their own fall-their removal from the offices that were the source of their wealth.

Q. How do you explain the collapse of the intended coup?

De León: For one thing, the attempted coup did not represent prior planning by the bourgeoisie as a whole. It did not even have the prior backing of all of the top sectors of the armed forces. But it did put them all on the spot. The intended coup caused a terrible problem for the bourgeoisie as a whole, as well as for the imperialists. Expecting Balaguer to win, they had intended to make a demonstration of holding relatively free elections, pledging themselves to respect the popular will and uphold the results. Faced with the decision over what to do, it turned out that the imperialists and the Dominican ruling class as a whole, including some previously pro-Balaguer sectors, decided not to go along with a coup and to accept the transfer of government to the PRD, which, after all, is also a capitalist party. This decision was made clear on May 18, shortly before midnight, when Balaguer made a speech saying that the counting of the ballots should resume and that the electoral results would be respected. Some of the leading sectors of the bourgeoisie issued statements along the same lines that were printed in the papers the next day. In face of this, the intended coup collapsed. The main reason why the rulers decided not to back the coup was their fear of the response by the Dominican masses. The concern and outrage of the masses was very high in face of the intended coup, as you can imagine. And not only did the ruling class as a whole fear a possible mass upsurge, but they doubted the capacity of those behind the coup to maintain economic and political stability over the long run if the coup was allowed to go through. So they decided not to back it.

Q. What was the stance of the PRD leadership during these events?

De León: The matter was resolved through negotiations and tacit agreements not only within the pro-Balaguer wing of the bourgeoisie, but also including the PRD and American imperialism. The main leaders of the PRD, for example, made clear their hopes to realize an accord when they called on the masses of PRD supporters not to mobilize in face of the intended coup.

Then, after Balaguer made his speech promising to accept the election results, Guzmán called a press conference the very next day. Among other things, he promised to refrain from any major shakeups. He promised a “team government,” a government of national unity, and he said that “the institutions of the country, including the Armed Forces, will be strengthened and respected, for the good of Dominican democracy.” He also promised that there would be no persecution against those associated with the Balaguer regime. And he appealed to his supporters to remain calm and refrain from mass action. So, you had a whole series of declarations by the PRD that were the counterpart of negotiations. These assurances by the PRD, which are still being made, are meant of course to cement the ruling-class decision to accept a PRD electoral victory. But at the same time, these statements by the PRD are contrary to the hopes and expectations of the masses. For example, when the PRD says that it will wipe the slate clean on the past, this goes against the masses’ desire to do away with corruption in government. Similarly, the qualifications now placed by the PRD on freeing political prisoners or allowing the return of the exiles are a retreat from the masses’ desire for a general amnesty.

Q. What do you think are the prospects ahead for the Dominican working class and the mass movement as a whole?

Tavárez: The masses were against the Balaguer regime and they expect things to change now. They consider it to be a new situation. They think there will be significant changes in their living conditions and in political life. They expect the right to political organization, trade-union rights, improvement in housing, education, and health conditions. And they will be willing to struggle to obtain these demands, which they expected to gain through a PRD victory in the elections.

This poses the possibility for revolutionary socialists to participate in these struggles alongside the masses, to demand not only that the government fulfill the promises that it made to the masses during the election campaign, but to raise demands that go beyond them. We can fight for nationalization of the multinational corporations, wage increases, a sliding scale of wages that would be enforced by committees of the workers-not leaving it in the hands of the government. There is a need to insist on trade-union democracy and on unity of the working class to struggle for its demands.

The aim is to mobilize the workers, the peasants, the urban and rural poor independently of the bourgeoisie, independently of the PRD, independently of the government. In this sense there is a political opening that we hope to take advantage of in helping to build an independent mass movement and an alternate leadership that will really represent the interests of the working peoples and the masses of this country.

* Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party)


1. I added an apostrophe to the word ‘teachers’ in ‘Dominican Teachers Union’.

2. According to longtime socialist writer Louis Proyect, Claudio Tavárez Belliard was a Dominican sympathizer of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in New York City. Email interview, October 1, 2018.

3. For detailed accounts of the repressive nature of Balaguer’s regime see: Torture in la Victoria Prison, ‘La Banda’ Slays Five More in Santo Domingo, Orlando Martínez Gunned Down In Santo Domingo and Dock Workers Fight for Democratic Rights

4. This represented a significant shift from the PRD’s political orientation of the late 1960s. See Dominican PRD Switches its Line

5. President Antonio Guzmán eventually passed an amnesty law that released political prisoners. See Amnesty in Dominican Republic